Democracy demands integrity

By Andrew L. Urban.

We used to trust them. Scientists, doctors, journalists, commentators, the media generally (and the Australian public’s own ABC in particular), academics, public servants, police, the courts, sportsmen and women … no, perhaps not politicians so much. A few, though … We used to expect integrity from them all. We no longer expect it. We longer get it. We distrust them all. This is damaging, weakening democracy in ways we can already see.

The most obvious sign of the weakening of our democracy in the absence of publicly visible integrity is the nature of the debates we are and have been having – about everything. Our public discourse is marked by dishonest smears, personal attacks, by lack of responsibility and accountability for what is said – and done. Lack of integrity – and the seeming lack of a desire for it – is corroding the foundations of a healthy democracy in which differences of opinion can be debated – well informed, respectful and rational argument can be had. When it is seen as more desirable to pursue an agenda than to honestly seek a solution, we are in deep trouble.

Whenever a genuine opinion is blasted with vitriol instead of argument, democracy loses a fragment of its strength. When opinions and points of view are withheld (silenced) for fear of denigrating blowback – instead of genuine argument – democracy loses another fragment. Bit by bit, all those fragments that bind to each other and make the big picture of democracy whole and meaningful, the jigsaw of democracy develops holes and gaps and the big picture is damaged, loses value. The glue that ultimately holds a democracy together is integrity – in all walks of public life, whether professional or political.

Arguably the most damaging – and infectious – public issue to destroy the integrity of science has been the rise of the strident, politically carried subject of global warming, promoted with missionary zeal as a moral challenge for mankind. The misrepresentations and plainly false information that became a frequent feature of what was meant to be scientific discovery has undermined our trust in pretty well all of science. The lack of integrity coupled with intolerance demonstrated in this sphere is so widespread and so destructive, it has become a cult that brooks no questioning. There is no reason to publicly explore the science; it’s settled. Shut up. You despicable denier. You destroyer of the planet.

The fire that’s burning and waiting to torch deniers is the funeral pyre of scientific integrity.

The furious insistence on anthropomorphic global warming has done great damage to the world’s poor – and to democracy. I suspect that were we to poll the citizens of the developed world on whether they would like to see the poorest villages on the planet to be provided with electricity and clean water at a cost of US$220 billion over the next nine years, OR to spend that US$220 billion on offshore wind farms (as planned), the result would be an overwhelming rejection of wind farms. Yet our political will has been arm-twisted to NOT consider what may be the wishes of the majority.

Or consider this: when the elected government invited Danish academic Bjorn Lomborg to establish a climate study centre in an Australian university, a minority – a group of academics and students – refused to accept him. Democracy is not negotiable; it is binary. Either it is or it isn’t driven by the wish of the majority. And this is what I mean by the lack of integrity being infectious; the growl of the minority, acting for an agenda, becomes the only noise we hear, the noise that often overrides the voice of the majority.

Academics, not just those with their scandalous behaviour viz Lomborg, have earned our lack of respect and trust on numerous occasions, creating a sad scenario in which they as a class are always suspect of agenda setting instead of academic rigour. That is a great shame and a great loss for a civilised, democratic, intelligent society. In the badlands of our world, some academics were harnessed by authoritarian regimes for political ends, to counter the intelligentsia resisting oppression. Now it’s academics who are repressing thought.

Lack of integrity has become standard practice in our body politic, so much so that some senior public servants – who once were paragons of independent advice to government – are emboldened in their unethical behaviour. Our human rights ought to include a right to peacefully insult and offend – but not to be unethical or to junk integrity.

Sporting heroes are frequently found to be scoundrels.

Public broadcaster the ABC has come under sustained criticism (not self criticism, I hasten to add) for unethical practices, presenting misleading information, entrenched lack of political balance, ignoring stories that reflect badly on favourite left wing causes and fellow travellers.

So who you’re gonna trust? The law? Well, not entirely. After three years of research into wrongful convictions / miscarriages of justice, I sadly report that the rule of law does not always rule in our criminal justice system.

“If the Australian public was aware that dozens of innocent people are serving lengthy sentences for murders and rapes they didn’t commit – and the real criminals are living free among us – we could expect considerable outrage and demands that ‘something be done’,” suggests Adelaide based Dr Robert Moles, co-author of Forensic Investigations and Miscarriages of Justice (Irwin Law, 2010), the definitive book on Miscarriages of Justice.

Pursuing convictions at the expense of catching the actual culprits of serious crimes, grave errors at trial by prosecutors and judges alike, shocking failures of forensic evidence and a failure to learn from historic cases (such as the wrongful Lindy Chamberlain conviction 30 years ago) are some of the reasons.

In other words, lack of integrity – which can also be fairly described as a stinking cocktail of arrogance, incompetence and self aggrandisement. The notion of integrity is bound up with respect; respect for a democratic society. But perhaps most crucially with respect for oneself.

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